Contagion levels and positive test rates continue to fall

Up to 8,000 Israelis a day can fly in and out via Ben Gurion as limits lapse

High Court ruling lifted daily cap, but embassies told no more than 4,000 Israelis can fly in daily, and another 4,000 fly out, as airport can’t handle more; Egypt crossing to open

Medical technicians test passengers for the coronavirus at Ben Gurion International Airport, on March 8, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Medical technicians test passengers for the coronavirus at Ben Gurion International Airport, on March 8, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A total of up to 8,000 Israelis will be allowed to fly in and out of Israel from Sunday after restrictions on citizens’ entry into the country expired at midnight Saturday following a High Court of Justice ruling.

Ben Gurion International Airport is set to handle some 60 incoming and outgoing flights on Sunday, as Israeli nationals come back into the country ahead of Tuesday’s elections, following weeks of stringent limitations.

The easing of restrictions comes as the coronavirus spread continues to rapidly diminish.

The High Court ruled on Wednesday that a government-imposed cap of 3,000 returning citizens per day disproportionately violated civil rights due to its sweeping and extended nature, as well as the proximity to the March 23 elections.

The coronavirus cabinet voted to end the cap in a meeting on Saturday evening. But it also approved limiting the number of daily flights to the airport’s “effective capacity,” with a joint statement from the Health Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office citing testing and social-distancing requirements. The cabinet ministers also vote to scrap the Exceptions Committee that approved who is allowed into Israel.

In practice, the Foreign Ministry said in an announcement sent to its representatives worldwide, that means a maximum of some 4,000 incoming passengers and 4,000 departing passengers per day.

View of the empty Taba crossing between Israeli and Egypt, January 28, 2021 (Flash90)

The cabinet also approved opening the Taba land border crossing with Egypt later this week, ahead of the coming Passover holiday which begins next Saturday night. Many Israelis use the week-long holiday to visit Egypt and its Sinai Peninsula. In the coming days, officials will decide how many people will be permitted to enter and exit through the crossing each day.

In an interview earlier Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the High Court decision was “wrong-headed since it risks bringing [coronavirus] variants into Israel.” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein had also criticized the ruling, calling it “irresponsible and contrary to the public interest.”

Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, leaving thousands unable to return, in an effort to prevent the potential arrival of coronavirus variants.

Meanwhile, Israel’s morbidity rates have continued to steadily decline as the country has been rolling back virus restrictions which at their peak shuttered the entire education system, public venues and most non-essential businesses. Most of the education system has since reopened, along with much of the economy. Limited audiences have been allowed back to sports and cultural venues with the coronavirus cabinet recently approving increasing capacity at such events.

Recent infection figures represent a dramatic improvement over the past two months, credited chiefly to a successful vaccination campaign. The success comes despite more infectious virus variants proliferating and the gradual lifting of restrictions.

Israel’s widespread vaccination campaign has seen over 4.5 million people receive two doses of an anti-COVID-19 shot while the rate of positive test results fell below two percent, as of Saturday evening.

An Israeli student receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection, at a high school in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, March 17, 2021. (Flash90)

According to Health Ministry data released Saturday, 5,159,879 people have received at least the first dose of a vaccine and 4,516,486 of them have received two doses.

Of the 57,914 virus tests conducted on Friday, about 1.8% returned positive — amounting to 1,017 new cases, continuing the steep decline since January when the positive test rate reached over 10%.

The basic reproduction number, also known as the R-value, which measures how many people each virus carrier infects on average, dropped to 0.63, the lowest since October, indicating that the outbreak was subsiding. It has been on the decline as large parts of the economy have reopened.

The number of serious cases stood at 549 on Saturday evening. They included 255 people listed in critical condition, with 199 patients requiring ventilation. The number of serious cases peaked at 1,237 on January 17 and before that was last under 600 on December 25.

In total, 827,199 people in Israel have been diagnosed with the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic last year. There are currently 18,873 active cases.

The death toll stood at 6,082 on Saturday.

Passengers walk in the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, on March 8, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On Wednesday, the Knesset gave final approval to a bill requiring those returning to Israel to self-isolate at home with an electronic bracelet or other technological means.

According to the bill, those who refuse to wear a bracelet, or are unable to isolate themselves at home, will be required to stay at one of the government-run quarantine hotels as an alternative.

Travelers carrying documentation showing they are fully vaccinated in Israel and those who have recovered from the virus can skip quarantine, provided they take a virus test just before the flight and on arrival in the country, and that both tests come back negative.

Those who have been vaccinated abroad must initially enter quarantine but may be released after a test showing they have antibodies, in addition to the two virus tests.

The election — the fourth in two years — was called after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline. The election, like the previous three votes, is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule, with a focus on his ongoing trial on corruption charges and his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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